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Carvin Haggins
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Carvin Haggins

‘Something has to be done’

Music | Award-winning producer-songwriter Carvin Haggins tries to stem the tide of full-on vulgarity

Issue: "Fighting fatalism," July 12, 2014

Carvin Haggins is a Philadelphia-based R&B songwriter and producer. With his partner Ivan Barias, Haggins has won eight ASCAP Rhythm & Soul Awards and been nominated for 19 Grammys for his work with the likes of Musiq Soulchild, Mario, Jaheim, and Ledisi.

Now he’s on a crusade to reverse urban radio’s descent into full-on vulgarity.

Log on to Haggins’ rageagainsttheratchet.com, and you’ll see and hear him delivering an unscripted jeremiad against the state of the airwaves. “[T]he songs that I’m hearing are disrespectful,” he says. “They’re degrading. They’re—they’re just tearing our children down. It’s over-sexed—it’s just super lawless. And as a concerned parent, as a concerned creator, as a—as a concerned person just listening to the music, I feel like it—something has to be done to stop radio from what they’re doing right now.”

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Besides his website, what Haggins is doing is confronting Philadelphia’s top urban radio stations, leading bullhorn protests and landing meetings with programmers. He hopes eventually to take his admirable cause nationwide.

Such a crusade, alas, has been tried before. And it failed.

In 1995, William Bennett joined forces with the late black Democratic activist C. Delores Tucker to stem the dissemination by Time Warner, then the dominant force in pop culture, of violent and misogynistic rap. Like a superior boxer weathering an early onslaught from an underdog, the label took Bennett’s and Tucker’s blows. Then, once the duo had punched itself out, Time Warner resumed business as usual, releasing whatever they had reason to believe would sell. Other labels followed suit, and now, almost 20 years later, there’s hardly any slice of the pop-music pie that’s not infected with the bacillus of gratuitous profanity.

Even women singers, once a reliably civilizing influence, have allowed themselves to be corrupted, and not just R&B cred-seekers but women from across the stylistic spectrum. 

Cases in point: the latest albums by the catchy and insightful British satirist Lily Allen (Sheezus [Warner Bros.]), the melancholy folky Swedish Söderburg sister-duo known as First Aid Kit (Stay Gold [Columbia]), the glamorously gloomy American pop-noir songstress Lana Del Rey (Ultraviolence [Interscope]), and the country superstar Miranda Lambert (Platinum [RCA Nashville]). Each album is musically sophisticated and not without some socially redeeming value. Each can be savored, like PG-13 or R-rated films, by mature listeners discerning enough to separate wheat from chaff.

But each also contains language that the classy and the cultured considered verboten.

Sometimes it’s just one song (First Aid Kit). Sometimes it amounts to a motif (the others). Each album really would be better had its creator found sharper ways of expressing herself instead of proving her equality with men by being as crude. Hamlet would recommend their getting to a nunnery. But, really, any reliable Emily Dickinson anthology would do.

Man knows not his time

Casey Kasem
Associated Press/Photo by David G. Massey
Casey Kasem

It’s interesting that Haggins’ campaign should coincide with the death of the radio legend Casey Kasem.

Understandably, accounts of Kasem’s passing have chronicled the tawdry interfamilial litigation between his second wife and the adult children of his first marriage. But that dust will inevitably settle.

What will endure is the way that Kasem, mainly by hosting the American Top 40 countdown, imposed a gently paternal civility on the unruliness of hit radio by using the week’s hottest hits to tell a story in which everyone could feel he belonged if only for three hours. 

Yes, it was fiction. But it also brought people together rather than balkanizing them into warring cultural enclaves in which civilization is the ultimate casualty. —A.O.

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